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Memory Lane: With NLFB cancelled for 2nd year, Sudburians reminisce about festivals past

Magical musical moments, ‘hippie’ clothes, and, yes, inevitable rain — this is what we’re missing

Northern Lights Festival Boréal (NLFB) has always been a family affair. Grandparents, parents, teens and kids party together in the sunshine on the banks of Ramsey Lake.

One of Canada's oldest music festivals, NLFB was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but organizers are planning to celebrate its 50th anniversary in July 2022.

From the beginning, it was a celebration of folk, world beat, grassroots, Francophone and Indigenous music. Organizers have always made sure there was a children's stage and lots of activities for kids.

It is always a small miracle if it doesn't rain on at least one festival day. Festival veterans come prepared with rain ponchos, umbrellas and blankets. invited readers to share their memories.

Retired Laurentan University professor Dieter Buse says, "The festival was an annual family affair: daughter Lisa volunteered, son Kent organized the concessions for one or two years, I volunteered and later I served on the board.

"Later Lisa brought her sons for the children's events, though we mostly came for the music to which my wife, Judith, and I often danced.

"Being a board member, two items stand out from the early years: the huge sum of cash collected, and with little security, worries about its potential disappearance. Since the performers wanted to be paid in cash, we had to count out thousands which they stuffed into pockets.

"Second, some of the money had to be taken to the student residences at the university, since most performers stayed there and the all-night parties started early. Hence to pay some we had to go there, often joining the parties in which much weed and booze changed many performers’ character traits."

Buse says he always enjoyed the "relaxed atmosphere, great music, good food, fun dancing or watching others, opportunity to catch up with friends and shopping for creative wares at booths.

In addition to the music, festival food vendors offered spicy options such as Indian or Caribbean dishes which for many years was not readily available in the city. Foodies could not get enough.

Shoppers had fun browsing for T-shirts, ‘hippie’ handbags, handmade jewelry, crafts, and artwork. Most people didn't need anything but were tempted by a few impulse purchases.”

Judi Straughan writes, "I remember first going to NLFB in about 1984. I can still remember that 1970s feeling the entire festival had. There were tons of booths where tie-dye was the mark of high fashion.

"One of the purchases I made that day was a kind-of suede/doe-skinned vest that only had a front and long laces holding it together at the back. I was swept away with the festival and knew the purchase was perfect.

"But later, reality hit. What had I been thinking? I never wore that skimpy vest again. Some things are right for the moment but say all the wrong things later. Ah … what a vest! What a festival!"

Professional photographer John Davidson remembers attending the festival with camera in hand.

"Taking photos at Northern Lights from 1971 until the 1990s while enjoying the festival was always so much fun. So many fond memories. 

"The summer of 1986 stands out. Colin Linden, Toronto’s Whiteley brothers (Chris and Ken), Connie Kaldor from Saskatchewan, Buffy Sainte-Marie and so many more," says Davidson.

"I recall walking through Bell Park and noticed Richie Havens, my Woodstock favourite (Freedom, yikes), sitting alone, cross-legged on the grass. I politely asked if I may join him.

"He was so gracious and exactly as kind as I had imagined he would be. I recall his large hands gesturing as he spoke. At first I thought he would say no to photographs. Thankfully, that was not the case and I got some great images.

"Later that afternoon, I caught him doing an impromptu workshop with Buffy Sainte-Marie before the rain came. Such wonderful memories.”

Sudbury Arts Council board member Don Johnson writes: "Sitting on the concrete pews of the amphitheatre, looking out over the lake, listening to the likes of (Franco-Ontarian rock band) CANO and (South African folk singer) Tony Bird, and the sounds of human-improvised spring peepers. Magical."

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer. Join her for a free short tour of historic downtown Sudbury, Saturday, July 17 as part of the Downtown Jazzed Up events. Meet at the corner of Elm and Durham streets at noon. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.